US court upholds religious freedom in employment

A court in America has reaffirmed the right of religious organisations to require their employees to abide by faith-based rules.

Last week the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a former employee of campus ministry Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) could not sue the group under employment discrimination laws.

Alyce Conlon was released by IVCF from a role providing religious counsel and prayer for not meeting its code of conduct concerning marriage.

Ministerial exception

Conlon sought to sue IVCF under employment discrimination laws but has now been prevented from doing so by the federal court.

The court said that because Conlon had the formal title of spiritual director her job fell under the ‘ministerial exception’, which allows religious organisations to require certain employees to agree with their doctrinal basis.

It determined that the “constitutional protection” for religious groups “categorically prohibits federal and state governments from becoming involved in religious leadership disputes”.

Constitutional protection

As a result, the decision by IVCF to terminate Conlon’s employment could not be challenged under employment discrimination laws.

The move was welcomed by religious liberty group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

A spokesman for ADF said: “The court was right to recognize that this freedom extends to groups beyond just those that are directly run by churches and denominations.


“No one should be coerced by the government to act contrary to their deepest, historically recognized faith convictions.”

Ministerial exception was most recently defined in a 2012 US Supreme Court decision .

In the landmark ruling, the Supreme Court said that churches, not the Government, should control the employment of ‘ministers of religion’.

State interference

The unanimous ruling was a blow to President Obama, whose administration wanted the ruling to go the other way.

Chief Justice John Roberts said: “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision.

“Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.

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